Resplendent in boots, leather and latex, the dominatrix continues to influence trendsetters. Photo: Getty
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How the Nordic Model will close the door on the professional dominatrix

Under the Nordic Model – which criminalises the clients of sex workers – the role of the dominatrix, which is as classically British as that of a steam train conductor, will be greatly changed and diminished.

My partner and I often hike along forgotten railway lines. They evoke a golden age of transport, when branch lines brought mobility and modernity to Britain. As industrial heritage, the steam train is universal, attracting fans across Britain and the world. I never dreamed of being a dominatrix, as a child might imagine driving a steam train, but when I became one I learned a trade as intricate, and as British, as that of the steam engine driver. I’m writing today because the “Nordic Model”, which criminalises the clients of sex workers, has been reviewed favourably in Parliament. If supporters have their way, it could become law here in Britain. If it does, my beloved trade could become as extinct as one of those abandoned branch lines.

I decry the Nordic Model because it undermines sex worker safety and strengthens moralism in the name of preventing trafficking, even as it ensures that all sex work is driven deeper underground. To become a dominatrix is to enter a caring profession; to establish rapport with a client is delicate and difficult, especially when a session involves physical or psychological torment. If hiring us becomes illegal, how can a client entrust himself to our care? “[Kink] is already widely stigmatised in society, so clients have a greater need for privacy and discretion than more mainstream sexual orientations require. Clients already face the threat of losing their reputations, jobs and families if outed, and criminalisation just adds one more layer of risk,” says Ms Slide, an experienced London dominatrix (pictured below).

Today, British dominatrices fall into a grey area, sometimes overlooked by law enforcement but subject to archaic laws banning “disorderly houses.” Generally, we don’t offer sex, so we don’t yet know whether we would fall under the aegis of a Nordic-style law in Britain. We do know, though, that sex workers in Nordic Model countries suffer decreased income and increased risks; Laura Watson, spokeswoman of the stalwart English Collective of Prostitutes, says that workers report new complications, such as client reluctance to call from unblocked phone numbers or pay deposits. Worse, criminalisation will inevitably filter the client pool, discouraging those who are unwilling to break the law. “The focus of the police will be on criminalising the clients rather than on the safety of sex workers,” says Watson. “That’s already the case, and it’s a complete disaster; for example, the police have already said that they will sit outside the flats, waiting to catch clients; in Sweden for example they are using phone surveillance to catch clients, so they’re tapping sex workers phones,” she says.

With the waning of the dominatrix, much history could be lost. In her 2013 book, The History and Arts of the Dominatrix, author Anne O Nomis traced the origins of the modern dominatrix to specialist courtesans of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. “At a time when few options were available to women other than hard manual labour or marrying up, these women stand out as savvy erotic entrepreneurs. . . They crafted their own self-image, developing equipment and practices which are as specialist as any craft profession,” says Nomis. As some of the top courtesans of their times, the lady flagellants, strict schoolmistresses and governesses of these eras counted members of the elite among their clients and admirers. This tradition has persisted, and even George Osborne has counted a dominatrix as a personal friend. Designer John Sutcliffe’s Atomage epitomised our distinctive style; resplendent in high boots, leather and latex, we continue to influence trendsetters, from Gaultier to Gaga. In our dungeons and boudoirs, we have also broken ground for sexual minorities. Kink has long been practiced without money changing hands, but moralism and patriarchy have historically narrowed the kink scene to sex workers and clients, and to those who would meet via underground contact publications. In this restrictive environment, dominatrices were an important conduit for the development and teaching of safe and effective kink, and our premises were often the only place where a novice could explore a long-held fantasy.

Kink’s popularity, fuelled by fiction and the internet, doesn’t preclude our ongoing success. Today, some of us are active members of our local public kink scenes, and we often share our knowledge and premises with our communities. Learning new skills is easier than ever before; today, anyone can take a class in rope or role-play. I think, though, that the distinctive aesthetic and performance of the dominatrix might be difficult to replace. Perhaps, enthusiasts could evoke us, as a re-enactor might evoke ancient martial skills, or as a steam train might carry tourists, instead of coal and commuters. But a railway preservation society does not a branch line make. If we bin the Nordic Model, and pass laws that strengthen the safety and freedom of all sex workers, the British dominatrix need not be preserved in aspic; instead, we shall thrive.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle